The World Transformed: Envisioning an Environmentally Safe Planet

By Brown, Lester R. | The Futurist, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

The World Transformed: Envisioning an Environmentally Safe Planet


Brown, Lester R., The Futurist


Living standards are falling in many countries due to environmental degradation. Fortunately, the changes needed to halt the decline are becoming clear, and some areas are reporting remarkable successes.

Many people have long understood, at least intuitively, that continuing environmental degradation would eventually exact a heavy economic toll. Unfortunately, no global economic models incorporate the depletion and destruction of the earth's natural support systems. Now, however, we can begin to piece together information from several recent independent studies to get a sense of the worldwide economic effects of environmental degradation. Among the most revealing are studies on the effects of air pollution and acid rain on forests in Europe, of land degradation on livestock and crop production in the world's dryland regions, of global warming on the U.S. economy, and of pollution on health in Russia.

These reports and other data show that the fivefold growth in the world economy since 1950 and the increase in population from 2.6 billion to 5.5 billion have begun to outstrip the carrying capacity of biological support systems and the capacity of natural systems to absorb waste without being damaged. In country after country, demand for crops and for the products of grasslands, forests, and fisheries are exceeding the sustainable yield of these systems. Once this happens, the resource itself begins to shrink as natural capital is consumed. Overstocking grasslands, overcutting forests, overplowing, and overfishing are now commonplace. Every country is practicing the environmental equivalent of deficit financing in one form or another.

Perhaps the most visible environmental deficit is deforestation, the result of tree cutting and forest clearing that exceeds natural regrowth and tree planting. Each year this imbalance now costs the world some 17 million hectares of tropical forests alone. Over a decade, the destruction of tropical forests clears an area the size of Malaysia, the Philippines, Ghana, the Congo, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Once tropical forests are burned off or clear-cut, the land rapidly loses its fertility, since most of the nutrients in these ecosystems are stored in the vegetation. Although these soils can be farmed for three to five years before fertility drops and can be grazed for five to 10 years before becoming wasteland, they typically will not sustain productivity over the long term.

Clearing tropical forests is, in effect, the conversion of a highly productive ecosystem into wasteland in exchange for a short-term economic gain. As timber resources are depleted in the Third World, transforming countries that traditionally exported forest products into importers,logging companies are turning to remote temperate-zone forests. Canada, for example, is now losing 200,000 hectares a year as cutting exceeds regeneration by a wide margin. Similarly as Japanese and Korean logging firms move into Siberia, the forests there are also beginning to shrink.

It is not only the axe and chainsaw that threaten forests, but also emissions from power plant smokestacks and automobile exhaust pipes. In Europe, air pollution and acid rain are damaging and destroying the region's traditionally well-managed forests. Scientists at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria have estimated the effect on forest productivity of sulfur-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel-burning powerplants, factories and automobiles. They concluded that 75% of Europe's forests are now experiencing damaging levels of sulfur deposition. IIASA estimated the losses associated with the deterioration of Europe's forests at $30.4 billion each year, roughly equal to the annual output of the German steel industry. These losses took account not only from the losses of wood but of the costs of increased flooding, lost soil, and the silting of rivers.

Degraded Lands, Depleted Seas

Land degradation is also taking a heavy economic toll, particularly in the drylands of the earth. …

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